By Amapola Española and Patricia Denise Chiu
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The word “deadline” may be feared by many a media student, considering it is practically synonymous with pressure and struggle, but Joel Lamangan’s Deadline (Reign of Impunity) plays on altogether different fears: the crushing exerted by the government on the media, and the continued struggle for press freedom in the Philippines.
Deadline is the newest release from veteran filmmaker Lamangan and screenwriter Bonifacio Ilagan (who also collaborated with Lamangan in Sigwa, Dukot and The Flor Contemplacion Story). The film focuses on the aftermath of the death of Henry Rosales (Luis Alandy), a young journalist who is killed after writing a series of exposés on warlords and political dynasties in Mindanao.
Alternately mourning his death and battling her own demons, his girlfriend, news anchor Greta Manarang (Lovi Poe), attempts to continue his mission by tracing the evidence he used back to its sources: Mindanao Weekly News reporters Azad Sinan (Allen Dizon) and Claire Pantilan (Ina Feleo), who are themselves being hunted down by mercenaries after their connection to Rosales’s work is discovered.
Meanwhile, Rosales’s death has awakened contempt in his colleague, Ross Rivera (TJ Trinidad), who used to be the government’s paid hack. The almost cursory way Rosales was killed drives Rivera to travel south, to the fictional province of Abdul Rabb, to find the story Rosales was trying to tell.
Fiction it may be, but the disguise is thin: the film’s antagonist, Abdul Rabb Governor Muntazir Ghazi (Tirso Cruz III) is leader of a massive political dynasty, commander of a formidable private army and evidently a silver screen stand-in for embattled Maguindanao mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.
Even the film’s climax is strongly reminiscent of a very real event: the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, which has been called the “single deadliest event for journalists in history” by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In the film, Manarang and the others race to a hastily-arranged press conference to expose their discoveries, but are met with disaster when bombs are detonated before their big reveal. The explosion kills 57 people, 32 of whom were members of the media. These figures reflect that of the Maguindanao massacre, which killed 58, including 34 mediamen. Ampatuan, son of former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., is being tried as the massacre’s mastermind.
Though it understandably modifies the basic narrative, Deadline skilfully handles the fictionalization of the massacre. It highlights the essential elements of the event, such as the perpetrators’ political motivations and the journalists’ struggles. Journalists are killed brutally and without remorse, for the selfish interests of the people to whom we have entrusted our government: this is the film’s primary message.
Yet that is not the only message: the film’s strong writing also shows how in reality these killings affect not just individuals, but whole families. The victims, then, are not only those killed, injured or threatened. While the journalists portrayed try to uncover the story, their families too become targets – if not physically, then emotionally.
However, not all the plot points that Deadline modifies for cinematic (and political) value maintain their essence. Of course it was more exciting to watch the antagonist get shot with military-grade weaponry, instead of watching him sit through legal proceedings, as the Ampatuans do these days. Yet the vengeful ending seems to suggest that justice cannot be obtained by due process, but only in Hammurabi-like fashion – an eye for an eye.
The portrayal of some aspects of journalism were likewise questionable. Perhaps it was a matter of acting, but Poe and Trinidad’s characters often seemed gauche, lacking the decisiveness and confidence one would expect from journalists who have achieved their status.
Deadline also fictionalizes front pages for major dailies, but these are often poorly formatted, and therefore do not at all look believable. It may seem a tiny nitpick, but if the filmmakers expect real media practitioners to watch and appreciate Deadline, then the commitment to journalistic standards – whether ethical, grammatical or visual – must be upheld.
In terms of production design, Deadline is in no way groundbreaking; in fact, at some moments, the film is poorly lit or angled. The most compelling visual device, however, is the simple shock of death – the sight of journalists being killed mercilessly and being found in ditches among weeds – which is simultaneously gruesome and powerful. The fact that Lamangan makes no attempt to conceal the brutalized bodies is a statement in itself. You need to see this, he seems to be saying.
Deadline lacks the polish expected of a veteran film maker like Lamangan, but then again, perhaps there lies the beauty of it. This is certainly not a perfect film; it looks like it was made, in parts, haphazardly. Yet its imperfections present the very earnestness Lamangan embodies when he calls for an end to the extrajudicial killings.
Ultimately, the movie achieves what it sets out to do, reminding us that while we declare ourselves a free people, many things still threaten our liberty. In doing this, Deadline proves itself a brave piece of film making, deserving of an attentive and critical audience who can see through the fiction to the heart of the issues, and dare to decide for themselves.